July 1 may be all about protests and celebrations, but for Carrie Lam the focus is on housing

For some the handover to China was a happy occasion, for others the beginning of the end of Hong Kong as they knew it

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 July, 2018, 2:00pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 July, 2018, 9:02pm

It’s July 1 again, a day of celebration and protest!

It has happened for 15 consecutive years since that day in 2003 when, hours after then premier Wen Jiabao wrapped up his visit and left Hong Kong, half a million people took to the streets to oppose the government’s push for national security legislation, also venting their grievances over many other policies.

The contrasting festivities and mass displays of anger on this particular day have become a tradition in the city.

Many find it remarkable to see the morning celebrations for the city’s return to Chinese sovereignty, followed by large protests against both Beijing and the Hong Kong government in the afternoon. And the 21st anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover is no exception.

Optimists see this phenomenon from a positive perspective, believing it speaks volumes about the merits of “one country, two systems”. To them, the opposition camp’s complaints about the erosion of this unique governing formula is unreasonable.

There are also people who see protests as simply unfit for the theme of July 1, specially designated as a public holiday for celebrating Hong Kong’s reunion with China.

Over the years, authorities have been careful enough not to allow the afternoon rally to ruin the celebratory atmosphere of the day. The protest turnout rate is seen as a thermometer to gauge the political heat.

July 1 protest is Hong Kong’s taste of democracy

One common practice over the years by both governments has been to roll out policies that can make people feel better.

That is why Hong Kong signed a significant trade agreement with the Ministry of Commerce in 2003, securing preferential treatment for the city for various types of business with mainland China. This agreement of closer economic partnership is still being further modified stage by stage.

Then we saw Beijing lifting travel restrictions on mainlanders, which led to the influx of visitors from the north. There have been many other supportive measures favouring Hong Kong’s economy, the latest being the Greater Bay Area development plan.

While these policies have not been problem-free – some have worked and some have not – the Hong Kong government under different leaders has also been mindful about easing political tension during this particular period of time.

So, when Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor on Friday announced her six new housing measures, a natural question put to her was about political intentions.

Lam made it a point to declare there was no political motive, stressing it was only because housing was the “most important, most complicated and most serious problem”.

Indeed, though Lam was grilled on whether she needed to show something that could be described as “mission accomplished” while marking her first year in office, she could not be accused of trying to dissuade people from joining the protest march with the rolling out of her housing initiatives.

The irony is that the organisers of July 1 protests have their own, increasingly difficult mission: mobilising more participants. This year they have tried to rally supporters behind a new slogan: “End One-Party Rule; Say No to Hong Kong’s Fall.”

Human rights group to deploy 15 observers for July 1 march in Hong Kong to watch police

Whether Hong Kong is indeed falling or has fallen depends on who is talking, but the major reasons that organisers listed for the protest were: the government’s disqualification of several radical lawmakers over improper oath-taking; the co-location arrangement allowing mainland law enforcement agents to carry out their duties on Hong Kong soil; and the Communist Party’s interference in Hongkongers’ way of life.

Whether Sunday’s protest is seen as a success or failure, here’s a little reminder to the organisers: politics is not always the sole reason driving people onto the streets, as past July 1 rallies have shown us.